“It’s the end of the world as we know it” (REM)

Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest suggested this week’s title & theme  – I think we all know why.

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Starting with an obvious choice, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009, tr. Lisa Dillon 2015), published by the wonderful &Other Stories Press – I wrote about another of their Mexican novels here. Herrera looks at the illegal immigrant experience through Makina, seeking out her brother at the behest of her mother, and desperate to return home.

“You’re going to cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll get desperate of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be.”

Makina’s journey is both physical and mythical.  As she travels through her homeland she has to ask men with pseudonyms for different types of help to get her across the border. The places she visits have similarly folkloric names: ‘The Place Where The Hills Meet’, ‘The Big Chilango’, ‘The Place Where People’s Hearts Are Eaten’ and across the border ‘The Place Where The Wind Cuts Like A Knife’. By not grounding Signs Preceding the End of the World in recognisable names and places, Herrera expands the simple journey to something much larger. Any tale of illegal immigration is going to have particular political resonances, but Herrera makes his heroine an Odysseus character and her trials a quest. While the tale is not surreal, there is a sense, as in myths and fables, that anything could happen:

“She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.”

Herrera is a writer who invents neologisms (definitely worth reading the interesting Translator’s Note for this novel) and so is fascinated by language. Through Makina’s journey he tracks the way that boundaries of countries, self and language are all permeable, and how this creates a modern, constantly shifting society:

“Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect  and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent  they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.”

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a fascinating, multi-layered novel, at once a story for our times but also engages with enduring, expansive themes. Hugely impressive.

And now I pause for thought to wonder if there are enough pictures of kittens in barrels to get me through a single news bulletin right now:

Secondly, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (2015) which I was alerted to last year by the many bloggers who loved this debut novel (written when the author was in her 40s – I must remember to tell my friend C who is coming to terms with the fact that she’s missed her window for those ‘30 Under 30’ type lists). I’m not going to buck the trend on this – I found it a compulsive read which I whizzed through to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

Peggy lives with her parents in the kind of north London middle-class bohemia that keeps Mini Boden in business.  Peggy doesn’t wear Mini Boden though, as it’s 1976 and her mother is busy being a concert pianist while her father gets into arguments with his friends in the North London Retreaters group. This collection of (male) survivalists are convinced nuclear war is imminent. A personal crisis forces Peggy’s father to act on his rhetoric, and he takes her to Germany, to live entirely isolated in “Die Hutte”, in the middle of a forest.  We know this fairytale has unravelled horribly from the opening line, told 9 years later by Peggy who is back in Highgate after a long absence:

“This morning, I found a black and white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar.”

The lie Peggy’s father told is astronomical: that the rest of the world has disappeared and they are the only two left living.

“ ‘We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes anymore,’ he said. ‘When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.’

I couldn’t remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.”

What follows is a narrative that moves back and forth between Peggy’s life in Die Hutte and that in 1985 Highgate with her mother and brother she never knew, Oskar. Fuller handles this extremely well, and I didn’t find the chopping back and forth disruptive or gimmicky. While not a thriller, Our Endless Numbered Days is definitely a page-turner, as Peggy’s comments drip-feed us information about what has gone on: there has been a fire, she has no hair, part of her ear is missing, her teeth are rotten, there is a man called Reuben involved in some way… and her father is no longer around.

The writing style is simple, and I found this a quick read, but the ideas are complex. Fuller is interested in the fantasies we tell ourselves and others in order to survive and the dangers inherent in not questioning these (insert heavy-handed political parallel here). She is interested in the price paid by powerless members of society when the powerful seek fulfilment by disregarding the needs of others (insert… well, you get the idea) and she is interested in the psychological fallout from childhood and our parents.  I saw the twists a mile off, and sometimes Peggy’s voice wavered, but this may have been intentional and it really didn’t matter. Peggy’s complex fairytale was both extreme and subtle, quite a feat.

“Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick white ice which had risen like a soufflé out of a bucket hanging on a nail beside the back door. I recognised it, it was the bucket my father and I had used…Oskar laughed and turned the handle twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too with the effort. The tap snapped off. And for the first time since I had come home I cried – for the music, for Reuben, but most of all for the waste of a bucket.”

To end, goodbye to a poet and musician whose work is bringing me some comfort – as always – in these troubled times:

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“A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know.” (Lord Byron)

This week I thought I’d look at book recommendations from my celebrity friends.  That’s a total lie of course, I don’t have any friends.

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Stylist magazine is given out free on public transport, and a couple of weeks ago it featured an interview with Hayley Atwell, where she recommended The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

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As we are all in thrall to celebrities these days and do whatever they suggest (is there any woman left alive who doesn’t regularly steam her vagina, as recommended by our favourite emotionally labile conscious uncoupler, Gwyneth Paltrow?) I thought I would follow Hayley’s suit.

The History of Love is Nicole Krauss’ second novel, a multi-layered story set predominantly in modern-day New York, but with frequent reminiscences back to pre-war Eastern Europe. Leo Gursky is an elderly man who lives alone and has a chronic fear of not being noticed, leading him to small acts of flamboyance: deliberately knocking over things in stores, nude modelling for an art class. Many years ago, the Nazi invasion of Poland separated him and the woman he’d loved since he was 10 years old.  He follows her to the US, but they cannot be together:

“The truth was I’d given up waiting long ago.  The moment had passed, the door between the lives we could have led and the lives we had led shut in our faces.  Or better to say, in my face.  Grammar of my life: as a rule of thumb, wherever there appears a plural, correct for singular.  Should I ever let slip a royal We, put me out of my misery with a swift blow to the head.”

Meanwhile, across the city, teenage Alma’s grieving mother is translating The History of Love, a book Leo wrote but is unaware was ever published.  As Alma becomes drawn into the history of the manuscript and the real people fictionalised therein, the stories interweave, expanded by the surrealism present in the translated manuscript:

There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations […] Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said.  In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person’s silence.”

There is also a great deal of gentle humour, such as Leo’s description of his aged best friend:

“the soft down of your white hair lightly playing about your scalp like a half-blown dandelion. Many times, Bruno, I have been tempted to blow on your head and make a wish. Only a last scrap of decorum keeps me from it.”

The History of Love crams a lot into a short space (less than 260 pages in my edition). It is a warm, humane contemplation of love, loss, the ties that bind, memory and identity.  Krauss does all this with a light touch which keeps the novel highly readable, and truly moving.  Nice recommendation, Hayley Atwell.

As I was thinking about books and Hayley Atwell, this reminded me of the TV adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, in which she starred with Matthew MacFadyen.

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A quick google of “Matthew MacFadyen favourite novel” and I have my second recommendation, A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre.  A Perfect Spy is Le Carre’s most autobiographical novel, telling the story of Magnus Pym, the eponymous agent:

“In build he was powerful but stately, a representative of something. His stride was agile, his body forward-sloping in the best tradition of the Anglo-Saxon administrative class.  In the same attitude, whether static or in motion, Englishmen have hoisted flags over distant colonies, discovered the sources of great rivers, stood on the deck of sinking ships.”

Following the death of his shyster father Rick, Pym retreats to the Devonshire coast to write the story of his life. Meanwhile, his controllers try to piece together the same story. What emerges through his damaged childhood, private school, Oxford and the secret service is a man with a permanently shifting sense of self, a tenuous identity that makes him so perfect for duplicity:

“Never able to resist an opportunity to portray himself on a fresh page, Pym went to work. And though, as was his wont, he took care to improve upon the reality, rearranging the facts to fit the prevailing image of himself , an instinctive caution nevertheless counselling him restraint.”

A perfect spy indeed. But A Perfect Spy is not an espionage thriller.  Instead it is a detailed portrait of a man who struggles within the forces that surround him: his dodgy father, his spymasters, his country, and tries to find intimacy and meaning whilst utterly defeating himself at every turn.  Pym’s feelings towards his spymasters are those of fear, contempt, hero-worship and love:

“a handsome English warlord who served sherry on Boxing Day and never had a doubt in his life” who summarises Pyms life as “concentric fantasies…defining the truth at the centre”

and across the Iron Curtain “Axel was his keeper and his virtue, he was the altar on which Pym had laid his secrets and his life.  He had become the part of Pym that was not owned by anybody else” who says of Pym “sometimes I think he is entirely put together from bits of other people”

What Pym is left with is a life built on so many versions of the truth that he’s forgotten which hold true meaning for him.  A Perfect Spy is bleakly funny and sad, a deeply felt study of what it means to be a man at a certain time in British history. Its elegiac quality is not only for Pym, but for a nation, and the damage inflicted both by people on each other and by governments on citizens, at home and abroad.

“Putting down his pen, Pym stared at what he had written, first in fear, then gradually in relief. Finally he laughed. ‘I didn’t break,’ he whispered. ‘I stayed above the fray.’”

You can listen to John Le Carre discussing A Perfect Spy by downloading the podcast from BBC World Book Club here.

To end then, something that captures my own conflicted feelings about being British.  On the one hand I’m glad I live in a country where this is a thing, on the other hand I think every last participant is completely insane:

“If you get depressed about being the second-best team in the world, then you’ve got a problem.” (Julius Erving)

The Booker 2014 shortlist has been revealed (admittedly way back on 9 September, but what I lack in efficiency I make up for in enthusiasm). Inevitably the spotlight falls on the winner, but it’s an achievement to even make it as far as the shortlist:  I thought this week I would look at two books that were nominated, but didn’t win. (Note to nominees – practice your losing face):

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Firstly, from 2006 when Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss won,  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (Penguin, 2006).

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ITCOM is narrated by 9 year old Suleiman, who lives in Libya in 1979 and is witness to political and personal circumstances that he cannot hope to understand.

“Concern. I think that was what I craved. A warm steady unchangeable concern.  In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child longing for concern.”

Instead of the concern he craves, Suleiman gets half-truths, bound up in love and warped by conflicting loyalties.  His father is frequently absent, leaving Suleiman with his mother, whose “medicine” is bought in bottles, under the counter from the local baker, causing her to become giggly and unfocused:

“If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her.  There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.”

Gradually it emerges that Suleiman’s father is opposing the state, and he returns home only to rapidly pack a bag before the sinister men in the white car, who take away fathers for public executions, arrive:

“There they were, the two people I loved the most, the two people I was certain would do anything to keep the truth from me”

Within this environment, Suleiman struggles to find his way, and does not always behave well.  Even as he is violent and destructive, you understand it comes from a position of being frustrated, scared and disempowered by the secrets within his home and the subterfuge outside it.

 “I couldn’t wait to be a man. And not to do all the things normally associated with manhood and its licence, but to change the past…”

ITCOM is a wise book, beautifully written, which tackles huge themes around the interdependence between personhood and nationhood in a deceptively simple way. I think it is a novel I will have to return to: despite being less than 250 pages it is so rich in ideas one reading doesn’t do it justice.

“Perhaps doubt is worse than grief, certainty more precious than love.”

Secondly, from 2008 when Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won, The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant (Virago, 2008).

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This novel shares common ground with ITCOM, in that it is also set in the 1970s, and looks at issues of identity and immigrant experience. Vivian lives with her parents in a flat off the Marylebone Road, and the past is a closed book.

“There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask, about my mother and father  and about their past in Budapest as young people without a care in the world, before they became the reclusive refugees who hid behind their front door and were timidly grateful for any kindness.”

In comparison to her quiet, timid parents is Vivian’s Uncle Sandor, who makes a brief, dramatic appearance in her childhood, and then, like so much else, is never spoken of. He is a slum landlord, a pimp, unapologetic and unafraid, and Vivian finds herself both drawn to him and repulsed by him.

“Because my parents never answered any questions about the past […] I learned to stop asking, and eventually I forgot all about wanting to ask. Suddenly, a treasure chest opened and out spilled all these precious objects.  I was full of everything my uncle had told me; it was not only my parents who suddenly acquired an additional dimension (time) but me too.  In my past there were rabbis and plums and grapes and wine. Everything was different now. I felt like I’d eaten a horse.”

What Sandor gives Vivian is a deeper identity, something more complex and difficult than she’d been raised to, by her parents who she only realises are Jewish by deduction, and who had her baptised because “there was nothing they liked more than official documents with their names on which they could show the authorities, if called on to do so”.

Bound up with Vivian’s experience of her past is her experience of the present, 1970s London, with its post-war population of refugees and veterans, and disaffected youth joining racist movements, their clothes displaying their allegiance.  Clothes are a strong theme in the book, as Vivian experiments with different looks, realising clothes can express and conceal both your body and who you are:

“My clothes acted as a kind of carapace, an armour with which I protected my soft, inner body.”

“Sometimes you put on a new dress and it becomes you, it is your flesh and blood”

Thus, identity, like clothes and bodies, is a changeable entity, where you can choose what you show others, but cannot always control what they see.

The Clothes on their Backs explores identity throughout a period when there was the possibility to be self-made, but the past exerted a powerful hold.  It considers the essential need to survive, and the high prices that can be paid for that need.  It’s a compelling read peopled with vivid, complex characters.

To end, a video to show a time when coming last provided an example of the greatest dignity and courage.  Derek Redmond was tipped for a medal in the 400m at the 1992 Olympics. Then his hamstring snapped…

“They laugh at me because I’m different; I laugh at them because they’re all the same.” (Kurt Cobain)

Dear reader, it’s been so long.  I’ve missed you, but the preparation for finals and my last piece of coursework took over.  Now I have finished writing the definitive essay on Cary Grant’s performance of gender ambiguity (OK, I’ve written an essay on Cary Grant’s performance of gender ambiguity) I have a brief respite which I choose to spend blogging. Away we go:

The Bridge concluded almost two months ago and I’m still bereft.  In my day off between coursework and revision I’ve been watching BBC4’s replacement foreign-language thriller Salamander, and although excellent, it’s not The Bridge:

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(Image from http://www.noblepr.co.uk/Press_Releases/arrowfilms/thebridge.htm )

I love Saga, I love Martin, I love the way their relationship developed in the second season, I love Saga.  I know I’ve said I love Saga twice, but this is because I have a girl-crush, the like of which I haven’t experienced since The Killing’s Sarah Lund:

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(Image from http://www.krishk.com/2014/01/top-socially-challenged-detectives/ )

How I wish I was effortlessly cool and Nordic, with scrappy long hair, Faroe Isle jumpers, leather trousers and emotional reticence.  Unfortunately I’m perennially uncool, I’m British, my hair is an inch long, I look terrible in chunky jumpers and leather trousers and I’m emotionally incontinent.  Otherwise the similarities between me and these two women are really quite remarkable.

Now, I know the socially inept detective is becoming something of a cliché, but I’m a huge fan of many of them (see here for how I excited I became over Sherlock) and I miss Saga.  It was this which prompted me to start reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Penguin, 2013) the day after The Bridge finished.  It’s not a detective novel, but it does have a main protagonist who is highly intelligent, socially awkward, inflexible, unable to read social cues and has a tendency to respond to things that are said literally.  Perfect, just what I needed to fill the Saga-shaped hole in my life. Don Tillman is a geneticist who wants to get married.  Having tried dating and found that “the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences” (how many single people out there can relate to that statement?)Don devises a questionnaire “a purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving, ideally, the perfect partner, or, realistically, a manageable shortlist of candidates”.  Into Don’s life breezes Rosie, who it’s safe to say, does not fit his criteria for the ideal mate. She is chaotic, confrontational, encourages him to drink, watches sport and is a smoker. They are perfect for one another.

““Where do you hide the corkscrew?” she asked.

“Wine is not scheduled for Tuesdays.”

“Fuck that,” said Rosie.

There was a certain logic underlying Rosie’s response.

[…]I announced the change. “Time has been redefined. Previous rules no longer apply.  Alcohol is hereby declared mandatory in the Rosie Time Zone.””

Although Don is unusual, in many ways his situation is ordinary: so many people spend time constructing their ideal mate they forget to think about the relationship they want, missing what’s actually in their lives, and who it’s worth compromising a bit of ourselves for. Simsion looks at this aspect of oh-so-human folly with a comic eye, and there are some hugely funny scenes as Don tries to get to grips with situations where he is hopelessly out of his depth: attending a “formal” function in top hat and tails, practising sex positions with his teaching skeleton and being walked in on by his boss.  Because Don is aware of the humour but doesn’t quite get it, the scenes are told in an utterly deadpan style that is hilarious, but you’re never laughing at Don, just the situations he finds himself in. This is because you are completely rooting for the character. Simsion manages quite a feat with Don: a resolutely pragmatic, measured voice that still manages to create a person that you really feel for, and a novel of real warmth and humanity. Simultaneously, Don exposes the bullshit that goes along with social skills and fitting in – the office politics, the lies and infidelities – that he is incapable of, making you question what is of real value, rather than what just makes life easier.   If you’d told me I’d like a book I would describe as “sweet and romantic” I’d tell you (with a raised eyebrow of scepticism, reader) that it really wasn’t my taste.  But, just like Don, I stepped outside my comfort zone, tried something new, and was completely won over.

For my second social outcast I’ve chosen the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Faber, 2008). Poor Oscar: he’s massively fat, massively nerdy, and all he wants is to love and be loved.  “Oscar showed the genius his grandmother insisted was part of the family patrimony.  Could write in Elvish, …knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, was a role-playing game fanatic….Perhaps if like me he’d been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn’t.  Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light sabre or a Lensman her lens.  Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.” An incurable romantic who dreams of becoming the “Dominican Tolkien”, Oscar’s life will never play out how he wants it to.

He lives with his mother Beli and rebellious sister Lola, and as we learn about all three of them, we learn about the recent history of the Dominican Republic and its impact on a family.  The novel makes frequent use of footnotes, which generally I dislike but which worked well here, detailing political history in the distinctly non-academic (though learned) voice of Yuniour, Lola’s boyfriend, serial womaniser and narrator.  The family are thought to be under the sway of a fuku “the Curse and Doom of the New World”,and certainly all are subject to violence and hardship, Beli in Dominica and her son and daughter in the United States.

There is a touch of magic realism as the family are also protected by a guardian animal that appears to them in times of extreme distress: “there appeared at her side a creature that would have been an amiable mongoose if not for its golden lion eyes and the absolute black of its pelt.  This one was quite large for its species and placed its intelligent little paws on her chest and stared down at her.  You have to rise.”  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has plenty to say about the immigrant experience, the price of assimilation and the inability to assimilate to the societies we find ourselves in, and the self-definition we express through the language we use. The novel has references I didn’t get: Spanish phrases and nerd-allusions, but it didn’t matter.  The refusal to be sentimental and the triumph of human spirit in the face of violence and tragedy meant this novel really spoke to me even if I didn’t grasp all the intricacies. It was funny and tragic, and truly moving.

Here are the books with the lovely Sofia Helin who plays Saga (you can tell it’s the actor & not the character because she’s smiling):

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“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” (Groucho Marx)

Unlike Groucho Marx, I quite like television.  I say this in the full acknowledgement that at least 99% of it is shocking in its lack of aspiration towards anything other than cheaply-made sensationalist drivel.  And (unsurprisingly) it will never be as rewarding to me as reading is.  But some of the programmes of recent years have just been astonishing.  I’m careful how I use TV, which essentially means I never channel surf to sit mindlessly in front of  America’s Next Top Gypsy Teenage Mom Hoarder Bounty Hunter Bride’s Got Talent or whatever else the channels are filling their many hours with repeats of.  I choose what I’m going to watch, and then my addictive personality traits emerge as I stack up hour upon hour to watch in a big binge.

This is why I’ve only just started on Mad Men Season 6. But aside from my unhealthy habits, there was another reason why I stacked up the episodes.  Fear.  I was so worried it wouldn’t live up to itself.  Surely, I thought, they’re due to screw it up?  They’ll take this piece of TV perfection and turn it into yet another series that lost its way and sends fans apoplectic with grief at the betrayal?  I needn’t have worried.  A few minutes in to the first episode, there was a moment so completely perfect I nearly wept with relief at the beauty of it all. (For those of you who haven’t sold your soul to Rupert Murdoch in the name of timely programming, and therefore haven’t seen season 6 yet, don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler). Here it is, the moment: Don Draper is on the beach in Hawaii reading Dante’s Inferno.  That’s it. Damn, Matthew Weiner is a bona fide genius.  Everything you need to know about a character distilled into one perfect moment.  Don Draper, living the life everyone wants: gorgeous and successful, beautiful loving wife sipping cocktails next to him, relaxing on a beach in luxury, reading about the nine circles of Hell.  I could’ve kissed the screen.  If I wasn’t such an appalling housekeeper & so my TV covered in dust, I would have.

And then this got me thinking about other moments in TV where books are used as a visual clue to as to the reader’s personality.  There’s the time in The Wire where McNulty (police officer) goes to Stringer Bell’s (drug lord’s)apartment, picks up a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and is so wrong-footed by it he wonders aloud “Who the fuck was I chasing?” But often it’s unspoken, and funny: Marcus, the scarily shark-eyed ten- year- old in Spy, reading The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas) or Machiavelli’s The Prince; Gromit’s many punning titles of great novels (my favourite: Crime and Punishment by Fido Dogstoyevsky).  It’s a great opportunity to flesh out a character (even a plasticine dog) without using any dialogue, in a matter of seconds.  A wordless conversation between the programme makers and the viewer.  So in celebration of such moments, here are two TV characters and the books I’d like to see them read (and proof, if proof were needed, that Matthew Weiner is not lying awake at night worrying that I’m about to emerge as a rival TV-producer-of-substantial-genius)…

Firstly, in celebration of the series return via Netflix, Gob from Arrested Development, for whom I recommend The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989, my copy 1996, Minerva).  The uninitiated can view some of Gob’s moments here:

Gob is a lunatic, obsessed with stage magic but woefully inept at its execution, a wannabe alpha male who will never lead the pack, despised by his mother and barely tolerated by the rest of his family.  And he travels everywhere by Segway.  I decided on The Joy Luck Club because I feel Gob could benefit from some positive female energy in his life, and this tale of two generations of mothers and daughters will immerse him in oestrogen-fuelled drama.  It will also show him the power of unconditional love of parents for their children, something entirely lacking in his own life.  The club of the title is a group of Chinese immigrant women who are living in San Francisco, and who get together to play mah jong.  At the start of the novel one of the women, Suyuan, has died, and her daughter, Jing-Mei/June has been asked to take her place.  The novel is divided into four sections as the three remaining mothers and each of the four daughters tells their story.  The tales explore the experience of the women back in China, and their daughters’ experiences as the first generation growing up in San Francisco.  The communication difficulties across the generations are contextualised within an Asian-American experience, but are really universal:

“For all these years I kept my mouth closed so selfish desires would not fall out.  And because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me.  She sits by her fancy swimming pool and hears only her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone, her big, important husband asking her why they have charcoal and no lighter fluid….I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water.” (Ying-Ying St.Clair)

“During our brief tour of the house, she’s already found the flaws.  She says the slant of the floor makes her feel as if she is “running down”.  She thinks the guest room where she will be staying – which is really a former hayloft shaped by a sloped roof – has “two lopsides”.  She sees spiders in high corners and even fleas  jumping up in the air – pah! pah! pah! – like little spatters of hot oil.  My mother knows, underneath all the fancy details that cost so much, this house is still a barn.  She can see all this.  And it annoys me that all she sees are the bad parts.  But then I look around and everything she said is true.” (Lena St.Clair)

The novel has been accused by some of dealing in racial stereotypes, but I think what limits this is Tan’s ability to create seven strong, original, fully drawn female characters and explore their idiosyncratic relationships.  The voices of the members of The Joy Club Club are memorable and distinctive.

Secondly, Annie from Community, for whom I recommend Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski (1982, my copy 2000, Canongate). The uninitiated can view some of Annie’s moments here:

Oh, Annie, with your relentlessly perky expression and upbeat attitude, your array of tastefully coloured angora jumpers and perfectly organised stationery.  Every now and again the strain shows and the façade crumbles, and Bukowski will teach you that that is where the interesting stuff happens.  Come join us on the darkside, Annie, you know you want to…… Ham on Rye is Bukowski’s most autobiographical novel, and follows his alter-ego Henry Chinaski through an abusive childhood and into an early adulthood where his main source of support and meaning is found in a bottle.   After his first experience with alcohol, drinking his friend’s father’s wine, Henry sits on a bench and reflects:

“I thought, well, now I have found something.  I have found something that is going to help me, for a long time to come.  The park grass looked greener, the park benches looked better and the flowers were trying harder.”

The only other positive experience Henry has in a childhood filled with violence and deprivation is when a teacher praises his creativity and reads aloud an essay he has written:

“Everybody was listening.  My words filled the room, from blackboard to blackboard, they hit the ceiling and bounced off, they covered Mrs Fretag’s shoes and piled up on the floor… I drank in my words like a thirsty man.  I even began to believe some of them[…]So that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools.”

Bukowski is a legend of the beat generation and his reputation for hard-living precedes him.  In some ways this is unfortunate, as it suggests a reputation built on image rather than skill.  But he’s a really beautiful writer who Capote could never accuse of typing, not writing.  For all you fellow bibliophiles out there, here is what happens when Henry discovers the joys of the library:

“It was a joy. Words weren’t dull, words were things that could make your mind hum.  If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you.”

Gorgeous.  Moments like that shine out like beacons amongst the violence and bleakness of Henry’s existence; Ham on Rye is a fantastic reminder of why we read.

Here are Gob and Annie with their books:

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“It is the test of a novel writer’s art that he conceal his snake-in-the-grass; but the reader may be sure that it is always there.” (Anthony Trollope)

Happy Chinese New Year!  This year is the Year of the Snake, so I chose a snake related quote to start, and had originally planned to take a snakey, not-too-obvious look at literature for Chinese New Year, but sadly my brain failed me.  So I’ve gone the more obvious route of choosing two authors of Chinese origin; there are two great novels and I hope you like them.  (I had intended to be much more timely and publish this post on 10 February, but with a belly full of celebratory Peking duck and seafood noodles working their soporific effect, I failed in this also.  So far it’s fair to say that the year of the snake is not off to a flying start with me).

Firstly, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo (Vintage 2007).  The female protagonist of the novel, Z (because the Brits can’t pronounce Zhuang), arrives in London speaking minimal English.  Over the course of a year in which she has a relationship with an older British man, she learns the language and some life lessons.  The novel is divided up into months, charting Z’s year, and each section has chapter headings of words and definitions that Z learns as she masters the English language.  For example:

“Confusion

Confuse v mix up; perplex; disconcert; make unclear

English food very confusing. They eating and drinking strange things. I think even Confucius have great confusion if he studying English.

….I confusing again when I look at whipped cream on little blackboard. What is that mean? How people whip cream? I see a poster somewhere near Chinatown. On poster naked woman wears only leather boots and leather pants and she whipping naked man kneeling down under legs.  So a English chef also whipping in kitchen?”

This fresh take on the English language makes for a really entertaining read.  Obviously the image of some sort of BDSM kitchen in a café offering afternoon tea is funny, but it also makes you consider why we use the words we use, and the way language can seem arbitrary.  Certainly she highlights oddities like:

“why there two go for one sentence? Why not enough to say one go to go?…”I go” is enough expressing “I am going to go…”Really.”

She’s right – why do we say “go” twice?  And language snobs take note, language is not set down in golden, irrefutable, unchanging rules :

“One thing, even Shakespeare write bad English.  For example, he says “where go thou?” If I speak like that Miss Margaret will tell me wrongly.”

While exploring language in a truly inventive way, Guo has done a great job of creating a distinct character’s voice, and not just because she starts off in stilted English and becomes more fluent throughout the year (by the end of the book Z writes: “I take the snowdrops. I gaze at the flowers in my hand. So delicate, they are already wilting in the heat of my palm.”)  It’s because Z is forceful, unique and engaging person who you really feel you know by the time you turn the last page.

For the second book I thought I’d look at Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo (Abacus 1982). The voice in this novel is very different to Z’s.  Guo’s novel is written in the first person, a very forthright engagement with the reader including direct questions. Sour Sweet is written in the third person and takes a broad look at the Chinese community in 1960s London through the Chen family and the Triads.  When these two “families” intersect, tragedy ensues.  The third person narrative allows for an ironic distance, but simultaneously you really feel for the characters.  When Chen meets the Triads to ask for a loan he constantly tops up the tea they aren’t drinking and fears his fruit offering is damaged:

“He noticed his best shoes had become quite sodden with tea. He exclaimed and moved away, seeing that the fruit in the bags had indeed been squashed and, as he had feared, there were greasy-looking patches on the brown paper.  The bags were already starting disintegrate.  Perhaps this was why they had rejected his offering.”

This passage demonstrates so much about the novel as a whole: the insight into a culture and power that operates across countries, the pathos of every day life, the humour of every day life.  Small tragedies that can escalate.  Failures to communicate even when you speak the same language.

And I suppose the idea of communication is what unites these novels as well as their consideration of Chinese cultures.  Both highlight the inadequacies of language, and the inadequacies of language users, as we try to reach out to others through imperfect means. Both are funny, both are sad.  Sour Sweet indeed.

Here are the books with a laden plate of what I know, from having read these novels, is wholly inauthentic  Chinese food.  (Which looks awful – I’m clearly not cut out to be a food blogger). But it was delicious.  I wish I could tell you that the picture represents all the Chinese food I ate that night, but that would be so very untrue…

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